Big dreams for big batteries: Pennsylvania looks to jolt energy storage development

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette | November 08, 2021

Big batteries have arrived in Pennsylvania — if not in physical form yet, then in the growing number of efforts to bring them here.


In late September, the state Department of Environmental Protection virtually assembled representatives from 85 companies and organizations for its first ever meeting of the Pennsylvania Energy Storage Consortium. Holding the forum was one of the recommendations in a report commissioned by the DEP on how to determine if energy storage can be used to solve environmental issues and bolster grid reliability.


Even without the gathering, the pipeline of projects seeking to put large-scale energy storage on the grid in Pennsylvania — and across the nation — is robust.


The U.S. Energy Information Administration wrote in August that over the next dozen years, 10 gigawatts of new utility-scale battery storage will be added to the grid. That’s 10 times what was on the ground in 2019.


“We expect the relationship between solar energy and battery storage to change in the United States over the next three years because most planned upcoming projects will be co-located with generation, in particular with solar facilities,” EIA analysts wrote.


Look no further than Brunot Island on the Ohio River for a case in point.


A developer has proposed installing a 20-megawatt solar array and a 40-MW battery storage facility near GenOn’s natural gas power plant there. For comparison, there are only 50 megawatts Pennsylvania storage on the grid today.


LS Power, a New York-based investor and operator, has put hundreds of megawatts of storage in the PJM Interconnection queue — a first step for developers to figure out how their projects would fit into the grid used to power homes and businesses. It is behind a 290 megawatt storage facility proposal in Elk County, according to data from the New York grid operator.


PJM’s queue doesn’t name the developers proposing projects, so it’s not clear who is proposing to put storage assets at the various natural gas power plants that LS Power has accumulated in Pennsylvania over the past several years, including in Springdale, Allegheny County; Shelocta, in Armstrong County; and Gans at Fayette. LS Power did not return calls from the Post-Gazette.


The company already operates what is considered to be the largest battery installation in the U.S. in California, a 250-megawatt facility that became operational in August 2020. It plans to build a 316-megawatt battery storage facility at one of its natural gas power plants in Queens.


Supply chain


Energy storage is an umbrella term that includes anything from pumped hydro to the batteries in your car. It can be fast discharge or slow, long duration or short, thermal, electrical, chemical, physical — you name it.


One participant in the DEP consortium suggested that repurposing abandoned oil wells for geothermal development could fit under the umbrella, although much of the discussion was about large batteries — the kind that could be invented, manufactured or installed in Pennsylvania.


With supply chain issues top of mind, the argument was made that as the energy storage industry grows, Pennsylvania would make fertile soil for its seeds and its flowers.


Some of it is already here.


Pittsburgh-based coatings giant PPG sells a thermal coating for automotive batteries and is researching a manufacturing process for electrodes for lithium ion batteries. Eaton Corp. builds electrical components. Mitsubishi Electric Power Products Inc,  in Warrendale, makes large energy storage systems.


Form Energy, a Massachusetts-based battery company co-founded by Aquion Energy alumnus Ted Wiley, is setting up a facility in Eighty Four.


It has developed an iron air battery capable of storing days worth of energy. One of its investors is the steel giant ArcelorMittal, which will produce the iron.


As happened with solar and wind, and oil and gas before, and coal before that, battery advocates are leaning heavily on the idea of energy independence underpinned by an American manufacturing base.


All but one of the suppliers to EOS Energy Enterprises’ zinc battery factory in Turtle Creek are within a three-hour drive, CEO Joe Mastrangelo boasted during a virtual panel on energy storage last week.


“This is critical for us,” he said, linking both the reliability of the supply chain and the grid to national security.


EOS, which now has 108 workers churning out batteries from a space inside the former Westinghouse campus and 32 open positions, will need a few hundred more at full capacity, Mr. Mastrangelo said.


“Having incentives to buy in America will help,” he said.


For now, one of the biggest incentives to ramp up energy storage is in the contentious federal budget bill. It’s a 10-year investment tax credit for stand-alone storage projects that covers 30% of the cost of the project.


Similar tax credits have been used to ramp up wind and solar development. State quotas for utilities to buy a certain portion of their generation from solar and other alternative energy fuels also moved the needle, and the DEP-assembled stakeholders asked that a similar mechanism should be considered for energy storage.


Many things to many people


Storage can function like energy generation, akin to a power plant, or as energy regulation, smoothing out the frequency delivered to electric equipment. It can fill in gaps left by renewable power sources or be used in price arbitrage — charging up on cheap power at off peak hours and discharging during the peak.


It’s a concept that wears many hats and, therefore, has attracted the attention of many regulators.


The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission — which regulates how rates are set for utility customers — took up the issue of utility energy storage last year when it posed a series of “how” questions and invited comments.


The PUC wanted to know whether storage belongs in the distribution architecture of a regulated utility and, if so, who should pay for it and how.


The comment period has been extended several times now and is scheduled to end on Nov. 29.


Valley Forge-based PJM Interconnection, the nonprofit grid operator for 13 states, including Pennsylvania, recently wrestled with how to categorize energy storage in the transmission system.


The DEP consortium agreed that all these agencies need to be brought in on whatever strategy Pennsylvania settles on to give energy storage a jolt here. The group’s next meeting is on Dec. 7.